Robert D. Kaplan, in a thoughtful piece in today’s New York Times, suggests that we are living in “the Asian Century.” His argument in “Lost at Sea” is that China, India, Japan, and South Korea are modernizing their militaries, especially building “big decks” and enlarging their fleets. The United States Navy, he notes, will have to share the sea’s lanes with ships from other nations. Writes Kaplan: “The military trend that is hiding in plain sight is the loss of the Pacific Ocean as an American lake after 60 years of near-total dominance.”
Kaplan is right to highlight the growing militarization of Asia. But he’s too hasty in arguing that the continent will, therefore, dominate the 21st century. If anything, Asian militarism probably will be the reason that historians will call this era “the Second American Century.”
In the twentieth century it took two all-encompassing wars and one decades-long struggle to resolve the most pressing matters in Europe. In Asia, Japan and Russia have yet to settle their differences resulting from World War II, and the Korean War still has not been concluded by peace treaty. More important, the animosity among the great powers of Asia—China and India, India and Pakistan, and China and Japan, just to mention the most prominent of them—continues to flare. And then there is always Taiwan, essentially the unfinished Chinese civil war.
Kaplan does note a few of today’s territorial disputes, but he ignores the more important ones, and fails to convey the intensity of any of them. Moreover, he does not refer to the military clashes and confrontations that have threatened peace this decade. Asia is an area of rising giants, failing states, and unresolved disputes, some of which have gone on for centuries. In this context, it’s unlikely that the Chinese, Indians, Japanese, and South Koreans will spend hundreds of billions of dollars on new ships and not use them in another monumental clash. We can probably look forward to decades of Asian turbulence. In many respects, Asia today is the Europe of a hundred years ago. For this and other reasons, Asians will not dominate this century.